Brent Staples, a writer at the New York Times, said that he whistles classical music when walking on the streets at night – to assuage the fears of white people. It sounds funny… and sad at the same time, that even today being black in America still provokes fear or loathing in (what should be) ordinary white strangers. However, I cannot be too quick to judge – I found my own shoulders tightening when traveling in the more ‘predominantly black’ communities of NYC.
Being ethnically Asian, I do feel that I am better off than my darker skinned peers, who are clearly distinguished, and frequently emotionally discriminated, upon sight. In several studies, doctors have been shown to diagnose and prescribe medication with racial bias… until asked to reconsider whether race had influenced their decision. Time and again in the justice system, racial bias has put more African Americans in jail than normal conviction rates would suggest. (In this article, authors Lilienfeld and Byron suggest ways to prevent that).
Xenophobia is ingrained. In his book The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond cites studies that show people who grew up among mono-ethnic societies frequently find difficulty later on in life to distinguish individuals from different races. Thus my favorite Stormfront quote “…besides, [Asians] all look the same.” I have the same difficulty: growing up in two different communities – one predominantly Taiwanese and one predominantly White (with some Hmong), I frequently have difficulty distinguishing one black person from another. In the beginning of dating a black boyfriend, I had some trouble picking his face out from his friends at first, which I covered up with myopia. Xenophobia is ingrained, but not impossible to overcome. With time, it is possible to rewire your brain to see these distinctions, as I had.One seems to need to be continuously reconditioned, however, when taken out of the environment again. Such as: When I see Bollywood posters, I still cannot readily tell that the leading female is a different one in the other movie, despite being able to do so while I was in India for a month.
Diamond also mentions studies that show we have a preference to mate (and marry) people who look like the people we grew up with, which may be why mixed children (and communities, chicken and egg?) are still not as prevalent in such a diverse country as the U.S. as one might expect from random mate choice.
In dealing with the dilemma of my natural biases, I may overcompensate: When narrating incidences in my life, I am intensely focused on not mentioning race, or descriptive words relevant to race, instead focused on obliterating the need to mention race at all. On ‘my own people’ or Eastern Asians I am less concerned, and readily make distinctions between Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese. However, I do not make clear distinctions when it comes to Filipinos, Indonesians, Islanders…etc. Besides knowing less about them from a cultural perspective and feeling the need to tread cautiously on such distinctions, Taiwan is a place where many migrant workers come from these nations, and they are frequently discriminated against, which makes me more cautious not to do. In actuality, some of my friends may find this disrespectful, as they may feel they are quite proud as a Filipino or Indonesian. For me, I change the tact according to listener… if I suspect that my distinction of the nationality may make my listener think less of the subject, I would do away with such national distinctions altogether, instead saying that he/she is a ‘foreigner’, and or qualifying a description of them with the great things that they do.
In a way, rewording the narration in this manner has helped me see strangers in a different light, and helped me realize that I still frequently function by racial biases – without being aware of it. As in many things, it takes work to overcome yourself and live consciously.